In The Shadow of Howard Hughes’ Houston Plant – Part Two
Howard, Jr. was said to have lived briefly in the Eastwood area near his plant while building an airplane at his aunt’s home on McKinney St.
The huge main plant for Hughes Tool located in Houston, Texas, fronting Harrisburg Blvd., had grown to be one of the biggest oil tool manufacturers in the World. It had the latest, largest, and most automated equipment for foundries, forging, heat treating, and machining anywhere. At its peak during the Texas Oil Boom, it was a center for manufacturing, design, research, metallurgy, and engineering for oil field technologies. This included the drill bit (well) and tool joint product lines critical for oiland gas drilling, some of the first technologies for ram blast bits for drilling in mines, geothermal drilling, and a hydraulic powered jackhammer known as the Hughes Impactor. It also manufactured a line of truck and crane-mounted earth augering machines (“diggers”) that were most commonly used to produce holes up to a depth of about 120 feet (37 m) for building and bridge foundations. It even had a fully functioning drilling simulator inside its main research lab where production or prototype drill bits could be tested on any kind of rock at temperatures and pressures normally encountered in actual drilling operations. In 1972, Howard Hughes sold the Hughes Tool Company; it had been the consistently profitable part of his empire, and produced the profits that built all the rest from the very beginning.
The VP for the oil company I worked for down there was a starchy, upright, dick-head; his mercury was always rising. A few times a month I had to attend his morning tag-ups in the breakroom. These meetings were filled with anxiety; he was known to fire people right there on-the-spot. I was present at one of these firings, in which the victim rebutted angrily, “You better watch your back!”
Most of the office workers got to work when it was still dark outside, myself included, and in the following weeks I noticed the Venetian blinds were closed on the VP’s office windows – or else become a fish in a barrel to some sniper fire. Our ancient security guard, Carl, was also by then carrying a big .357 Magnum – he had recently been upgraded from the walking, unarmed variety of rent-a-cop. But Carl was fired a few months later – one day he dropped his pants to take a deuce, the holster dropped also, hit the floor and the gun went off – Darryl and I traced the bullet hole through several baseboards and rooms before reaching a dead end. Nobody was injured, and poor Carl as legend had it, no doubt in shock, had his hands up, pants around his ankles, shuffling out of the stall as you will, shouting “I’m okay! I’m okay!”. I missed Carl after he was gone. He was an avid reader and like myself a big Civil War buff. After I loaned him a few books, he’d always return them in a few days, having read the entire thing.
But just so you don’t think that VP was ALL bad, he did cater in barbecue once a month, albeit with a catch – you had to donate a pint at the blood drive – and a mobile blood van was wheeled in to the parking lot. Participation was basically mandatory. Any manager without 100% of the rolls contributing was called to answer on the carpet. Unethical – Yes! Illegal – Maybe. Donating blood is easy and quick compared to giving your plasma, which could take hours as the life is drained from you. And plasma pays more.
And then there was Lupe. Lupe was some type of floor manager at the plant – exactly what he did all day I don’t remember, but he came into our engineering trailer a lot to double-check serial numbers – which were always correct. In the summer he was in there a lot, for the air-conditioning; in the winter, for the heat. He was about sixty back then and I never saw him not wear overalls, or without his clipboard. But he rocked those overalls, and in a time before the hipsters hijacked the entire overalls’ scene. Lupe was a jovial cat and he was always singing aloud one of the lesser-known Freddy Fender songs. I didn’t know it at the time, but to some, Freddy was the Elvis of Hispanic country and western singers; a real crooner. And in a time before the internet, Lupe didn’t like how I knew that Fender had been in prison once for marijuana possession in Louisiana. I had simply read that in my Rock Encyclopedia, I wasn’t judging the man and as always, it has to do more with my knack for useless pop culture and music trivia, than with judgment. But Lupe was such a Fender fanatic, it seemed as though he couldn’t see a photo of the man without yellin’ himself hoarse! Fender was not a one-hit wonder exactly – he was a two-hit wonder, like Weezer, his two big hits separated by a dozen or so years. I sincerely hope that Lupe is sitting in his rocking chair tapping his foot to some old Freddy song while his wife is in the other room heatin’ up the Cream O’ Wheat.